From a distance
30 Nov 2012 7 comments. tbs.pm/3240
I have a faint remembrance of commercial radio from my very early days. I may have been no more than three years old at the time, but I can remember standing in the cramped back kitchen of our council house next to a popping and spluttering gas fire (which must have been quite high on the ‘How To Poison Your Family’ list; ‘town gas’ this was as well) while my brother got ready for work of a morning. I recall that whichever old valve radio my father had managed to get working at the time was on quite a high shelf, and that it was playing Caroline North (that being the only pirate station we could get in these parts).
Of course, I may have mis-remembered that part of it. The kitchen, the gas fire, the radio, even my brother I am sure about, but could it really have been Caroline? Could it after all have been the Light Programme having one of its occasional fits of attempted hipness? Who can say for certain now, over forty years on?
If I have misled myself on that experience, then I can at least be clear about when I next heard commercial radio. I’ve mentioned more than once that I had permission – subject to behaviour – to take my mother’s breeze-block of a Marconiphone transistor radio – with its fake chrome trim and vinyl covering, the radio equivalent of the Ford Corsair – up to bed with me of an evening (this would have been about eight o’clock, certainly no later; I’d have been no more than six at the time). I had somehow managed to find Radio Luxembourg and, although not particularly enamoured of pop music at that time, would listen while I read for the umpteenth time some dog-eared old book about the railways of the world (in those days I could have given you chapter and verse on the Pikes Peak rack railway, not to mention how they laid fog-warning detonators on the London – Newcastle line for the benefit of the steam-engine drivers), or zooming my Matchbox cars up and down the folds of my tartan bedspread.
The funny thing is, I don’t particularly remember any commercials as such. It’s quite possible that there weren’t any in the sense that I understood them from ITV, because on Luxy the programmes themselves were sponsored, and the sponsor’s name would figure in just about every linking announcement. This is probably why I don’t remember any of the advertising – it was just part of the chat before, say, ‘I Can’t Let Maggie Go’ by The Honeybus came on. Again.
By the time I was about eight or nine and had a small transistor set of my own (under the bedclothes, listening, for the use of), my preferences had drifted away from 208 to Radio Two or Radio Four (not Radio One – far too loud and weird for me), and, with the demise of the pirates a long way in the past by then, commercial radio seemed to be an alien – indeed un-British – concept which couldn’t happen here again.
This remained my perception until the early part of 1974. I was eleven, going on twelve, and no longer needed to suffocate under the blankets with a small tranny (erm…). My brother had moved back in with us, and we had to share a bedroom. What we also had to share was the substantial, matter-of-fact Loyds hi-fi he had brought back with him. This contained a turntable, an 8-track player (younger viewers may need telling that 8-track was the audio equivalent of the Betamax – better sound quality than cassettes, but doomed by other inconveniences and a lower profit margin), and a radio which had an FM band on it which could receive stereo transmissions – if you were in range of any, of course.
Stereo broadcasts on the BBC were still pretty rare at that time, especially on Radio Four (the writer Roger Wilmut once mischievously claimed that not only was the BBC of the period not sure about stereo, there were times when it wasn’t even sure about radio). Only Radios Two and Three (in which I had even less interest then than I do now) regularly broadcast in it, apart from the odd programme on Radio Four and the two hours each weekday night when Radio Two grudgingly handed over its FM frequencies to Radio One for ‘Sounds Of The Seventies’. It was a time of austerity, the Three Day Week was upon us, television was closing down at 10.30pm, and something as special as stereo broadcasting had to be limited to where it would be needed or appreciated most.
What broadcasting in stereo there was was invested with a fair amount of hiss because although we were at about 850 feet above sea level, with unrivalled views of the Cheshire Plain and within easy reach of the shops, the hi-fi had no external aerial and the decoders in most stereo-capable sets were still quite basic anyway, so most stereo broadcasts sounded like the rush-hour at Harry Ramsden’s. It was easier to turn the selector switch to ‘FM’ rather than ‘FM Stereo’ just so you didn’t end up getting earfuls of that interference that eastern dictatorships used – so we were assured – to disorientate captured enemy agents. The stereo pilot light stayed lit, however, and this provided me with a huge clue as to what was to come.
In an access of boredom one evening, I was turning the dial across the FM band looking for something – anything – worth listening to. It’s worth remembering that in those days the FM broadcast band only went up to about 97MHz, the wild rolling savannahs up to 104MHz – as the upper limit then stood – being the preserve of, amongst other things, police radio (a few years later, many a late night would be saved from tedium by hearing the messages being passed between North Wales’ finest in hot pursuit of drunk drivers up the A55, although you usually only got one side of the conversations for technical reasons). And, the odd in-range BBC local station – Merseyside and Manchester, and Blackburn and Stoke if you were lucky – apart, Radios Two to Four were all that could be found on what was left.
I had got past 96MHz and had resigned myself to having to try Medium Wave (and hoping to avoid that slightly creepy Deutsche Welle interval signal), when suddenly the stereo pilot light came on and I heard music. I don’t recall now which piece was playing when I stumbled upon the signal – the two pieces I remember hearing time and again thereafter were Leroy Anderson’s ‘The Typewriter’ and the ethereal (some would say eerie) recording of Canteloube’s ‘Baïlèro’ or ‘Shepherd’s Song’, which I remembered having been used on a TV commercial for Dubonnet a little while before – but I sat and listened, waiting for some clue as to what this unexpected discovery might be. Had the buccaneers of a bygone era returned?
Enlightenment wasn’t that long in coming, and I heard an announcement stating that I was listening to a test transmission for Greater Manchester Independent Radio – to be known on air as Piccadilly Radio – which would be broadcasting for twenty hours a day from the second of April – which by then was just a week or two away.
This was exciting in two ways: firstly because it was something new and to an eleven-year-old technophile, new is always good; and secondly because it meant an alternative to the BBC as – Luxembourg and the occasional snatch of Athlone notwithstanding – that’s all there had been round our way since the demise of Caroline North.
I didn’t tune in for Piccadilly Radio’s opening on April 2nd 1974. It was at 5am for one thing – far too early for an eleven-year-old who didn’t need to get up for school until past 7.30, and in any case it would only have woken my brother, especially if he had fallen asleep with the headphones on again. So I missed Roger Day (whose name meant nothing to me at the time – it was only much later that I found out about his impressive hinterland in pirate radio) following the opening seven-minute(!) news bulletin with ‘Good Vibrations’ by his beloved Beach Boys.
I was a bit more on the ball just over six months later when Liverpool’s Radio City arrived, though. Its opening had two advantages over its neighbour: firstly, I now had a bedroom to myself again; and secondly, it opened at six o’clock, with Arthur Murphy (another legend) spinning Stevie Wonder’s ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’. Listening wasn’t as easy in another way, however: because my brother had remarried and moved out, I was forced back onto my own resources, namely my old three-band Philips transistor. On top of which, the FM transmitter at Allerton Park had had its service date delayed (I seem to recall that the site had been vandalised), so City was only initially available on 194 metres out of Rainford near St Helens – right on the opposite side of the station’s coverage area from me. Luckily – it being October 21st – six in the morning fell at that happy time where long-distance interference on medium wave had ceased but daylight conditions hadn’t shrunk the viable coverage area too much.
It was probably as a result of the difficulties caused by its only having an AM outlet for the first few months of its existence that, even though City was only half as distant from me geographically, I stuck with Piccadilly. This loyalty continued for a time even after Allerton Park finally came on air some weeks later.
Ridiculously, given that neither station was local to us (although City had pretensions in that direction, if only in default of any competition), there was some friction in the schoolyard over which station one should listen to; a radio version of ‘the blues and the greens’ in which I was – as per usual – on the wrong side, at least numerically. It wasn’t quite civil war, but it certainly wasn’t civil either, with jibes like “Piccalilli Radio!” and “Radio Shitty!” being snarled back and to like the dialogue from a particularly bad Hemingway short story.
So what was the programming like? Well, much of it was what one might have expected, in that the daytime was strongly Top 40, with DJs – they were still called that then, boys and girls – who seemed straight out of Central Casting (or, more frequently, the United Biscuits network). Some of the jocks on Piccadilly already had ‘form’ (like Roger Day and Steve Merike); others, such as Phil Wood and Ray Teret, were to become local legends; a few, like Andy Peebles, went on to a wider audience still. City had a similar blend, where an old pro like Arthur Murphy – who would commute from Dublin every Friday to do the late-night weekend spots – mingled with soon-to-be local heroes Roger Blythe and Norman Thomas, with Bill Bingham taking the late-night weekday spot on his way to becoming one of the voices of Channel Four.
What they both had that Radios 1 and 2 singularly lacked at that time, though, was enthusiasm. Many – though by no means all – of the presenters were local or already had established ties to the areas to which they were broadcasting. There was a freshness and fun to the style of presentation; not just the DJs themselves but the whole package, jingles, promos and all. And you got a sense that they all felt that the area they were broadcasting to and the interests of the people who lived there mattered.
Apart from their coverage of local news (bulletins on the hour every hour and a thirty-minute round-up in the early evening – a crucial element of any station’s claim to the loyalty of its audience, and something largely lost on those who run ILR today), it was in the evenings and at the weekends where these stations truly distinguished themselves. Both stations promoted what would now be called ‘specialist’ shows, be it Andy Peebles’ ‘Soul Train’ and Harry Ogden’s two-hour ‘Folkspan’ on Piccadilly or Phil Easton’s ‘Great Easton Express’ on City, which was one of the few places you could hear some edgier sounds than those provided elsewhere.
So many memories come back from the years when I transferred my affections from the one station to the other and back again with adolescent promiscuity. I had certainly moved over to City by the time mid-1975 came around – possibly because of better reception – and hearing 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’ still brings recall of lying in bed listening to it being played on ‘Downtown’ by Bill Bingham one of those hot, sticky summer nights, much as MFSB’s ‘The Sound Of Philadelphia’ makes the image form of listening to Andy Peebles or Tony Emerson the previous year. There is a scholarly thesis waiting to be written about how music may be the nearest we come to a functioning time machine.
By 1976, however, I was back with Piccadilly. There were two main reasons: for one, I found the Manchester accent far more to my liking than its counterpart to the west; and the other was a remarkable presenter whose full name was Charles James Morrison Stannage. James Stannage had a late-night slot during the week, and was possibly the UK’s first ‘shock jock’. A presenter being rude to the people who wrote or phoned in was completely new and was, I must admit, a little troubling to a gently-nurtured, well-mannered weed such as me. But that wasn’t why I listened. Amidst all the standard tracks just about everyone else was playing, he would play comedy records, especially the ones which were being released by that group of performers who had emerged from that most unlikely of sources, the folk club scene. So it was that I got to hear routines and songs from not only the North West’s own (Mike Harding, Bernard Wrigley, Bob Williamson), but also artists from other areas, such as Birmingham’s Jasper Carrott and the Staffordshire miner’s son-turned-sailor-turned-comedian Shep Woolley.
‘The Great Easton Express’ apart, I stayed with Piccadilly almost exclusively after that and over the subsequent three or four years, for there were good things yet to hear: for instance, a six-part dramatisation of Stephen Gallagher’s dystopian novel ‘The Last Rose Of Summer’, the cast of which reads like an honours list of announcers – John Mundy, Charles Foster and David Marlowe to name but three.
(Yes, just imagine: a local commercial radio station doing serious drama – or any drama at all, for that matter).
They also had a good oldies show on Saturday evenings (hosted for a time by proto-prankster Steve Penk – I have a signed photo from that time of him wearing a moustache singularly ill-judged for one of his tender years; it looked like a distressed caterpillar), and it was also where I first came across another future legend, namely Mark Radcliffe. In 1981, he hosted an early Saturday-evening show – mostly about the Manchester music scene of that time – called ‘Transmission’. This was followed a short while afterwards by ‘Cures For Insomnia’, a late-Friday night programme in which he played a great deal of what was later to be called ‘indie’. This show became an absolute ‘must hear’ for me; so much so that, having gone into town to meet up with my friends in our pub of choice, I would leg it up town just before last orders to catch the last bus home and grab something to eat before collapsing half-pissed on the bed to listen to it. It gave me a wholly necessary expansion of my musical horizons, although it wasn’t until I finally picked up on John Peel in the mid-80s that that expansion was consolidated and completed.
In the autumn of 1981, I went away to university at Aberystwyth. There was no local commercial radio there – in fact no local radio of any description, both Radio Wales and Radio Cymru emanating from Cardiff or Bangor. Indeed, it appeared to be a broadcasting desert for anyone whose tastes ran beyond what was served up by the Corporation’s networks. Another accidental retuning saved my sanity when – in a similar state of desperation to the one which had led me to find Piccadilly’s test transmissions – I found a powerful signal at 846KHz, right next to Radio Wales. To my delight I had stumbled upon Radio Nova, surely Chris Cary’s finest creation. Yes it was Top 40 radio, but it was being done with the same sort of élan and zest which had characterised the early years of ILR – if you heard the station, you were just bowled over by the sheer exuberance of the style. And of course it was coming from another country and it was regularly interfered with by the Irish government and RTÉ (although both organisations maintained a policy of denial), which was always going to lend an extra touch of excitement to a radio geek and short-wave listener like me.
Unfortunately, my relationship with Nova was cut short when, owing to a serious lack of application to the job in hand, I was forced to spend a year out of uni and out of range of Nova (although I did get – and still have – the t-shirt). This, however, coincided with a new development close to home. An ILR station for north-east Wales had been mooted for some time as part of the second major tranche of stations, and in 1982 it seemed we were finally going to get it. Marcher Sound would broadcast from Wrexham to the town and surrounding areas and to Deeside. The water had actually been tested by the BBC, whose Radio Deeside opt-out from Radio Wales had started in 1980 to meet a perceived need in an area badly hit by unemployment, and which had expanded to become Radio Clwyd the next year, gaining a loyal audience despite limited broadcasting hours.
Before Marcher Sound actually came on air, however, it became clear that it wasn’t going to be quite what many of us had hoped for. For one thing, the coverage area had been changed; in addition to Wrexham and Deeside, the station was now going to serve most of west Cheshire and parts of north Shropshire as well. For another, because of the comparatively small audience even in that expanded area (at least, by the standards of the first two tranches of ILR stations) and the fact that we were by then deep in the grip of the first of the Thatcherite recessions, Marcher would only broadcast for twelve hours a day, relaying Radio City from 6.30 each evening. The original consortium of redundant Shotton steelworkers who had won the franchise bid was gradually sidelined, and the feeling arose locally that – the station’s slogan ‘Your Station, Your Sound’ notwithstanding – we were being short changed.
Nonetheless, I awoke just before 6.30am on Monday 5 September 1983 to hear Lord Evans of Claughton officially open the station. All one could do was hope for the best. Alas, the station soon manifested itself as a predictable disappointment. The limited hours of service alone gave the unfortunate impression of a part-time outfit, but it soon became apparent that – for obvious demographic reasons – the station was going to sell itself far more to listeners on the English side of the border, despite the location of its studios right next to my old comprehensive school on the western outskirts of Wrexham. There was also the quite comic set-up whereby the station’s meagre Welsh-language output (in an area which had a fair proportion of Welsh-speakers in Wrexham’s western hinterland) of just thirty minutes (later one hour) per day during the week and nothing at all at the weekend, was broadcast only on the AM transmitter – which was on the English side of the border at Farndon.
There was also a disappointing lack of involvement from the station in the local community, certainly compared to the levels I had hoped for from hearing how City and Piccadilly had done it in the previous decade. There was no local current affairs programming, the local news coverage was little better than cursory (and skewed towards Cheshire) and – football apart – local events were scarcely mentioned. By a pleasing irony – or the act of some karmic force with a wretched taste in practical jokes – a few short years later I actually worked for what passed for the community outreach division of the station, but even that was set up by the Community Service Volunteers rather than by the station itself, and was entirely staffed by people on the government’s Community Programme scheme for the unemployed. The attitude of the station’s managers – and most (but not all) of its presenters – was to tolerate us as a minor interruption in their customary routine of self-promotion.
Defenders of the station might claim that it was very popular locally. I don’t think this can be gainsaid in strict factual terms, but in the same way that what is good may not be popular, what is popular is often not very good at all. Apart from one Friday-evening rock show – hosted by a friend of mine with quite similar musical tastes – I seldom listened to it. It seemed to have nothing of any depth to offer, and certainly nothing which added to any sense of local identity. Much of this was down to commercial imperative, of course, but how in all fairness could it anyway, when faced with having to serve such a perversely diverse area?
I think that was when the scales fell from my eyes. I became disillusioned, and local radio – and commercial radio in general – lost all its attraction for me long before its television equivalent suffered the same fate, and for much the same reasons. For we had entered the era of conglomeration, takeover and that quack nostrum called ‘choice’, which seems merely to mean ‘more of whatever the regulator will let you get away with’. Marcher Sound got into serious difficulties, was passed around between various corporate entities, was rebranded, renamed, reorganised, merged, demerged and generally Carltoned about with until it seemed no longer to belong to anyone at all, least of all the locality. Even the major ILR stations have suffered this fate, and this trend was deeply detrimental to any notion of what I believe to be the most important element of ILR – the ‘Local’ bit. Indeed, ‘Independent Local Radio’ has moved ever closer to a comparison with Voltaire’s famous description of the Holy Roman Empire, in that it isn’t independent (which in any case was always just a way of saying ‘commercial’ without being explicit about it), it certainly isn’t local any more, and there may be a time fast approaching when it could be called radio only in a strict technical sense and by force of habit. The style has become more and more generic and generalised, the formatting blander and blander, less and less programming is originated in the coverage area itself, and the ownership concentrated in the hands of two or three large corporations whose priorities and ambitions lie most emphatically elsewhere. In the same way in which the prevailing ideology of our times has favoured private benefit over public good, so too has ‘local’ become an epithet always to be associated in public discourse – or at least in the discourse of that section of the public which is deemed to matter – with ‘provincial’, if not ‘parochial’. It happened to television later, and the warning signs should have been seen.
It is true that there have been hopeful signs in recent years that the emergence of smaller ‘micro-stations’ – many of them developing out of the Restricted Service Licence system or even from the enterprising ‘pirates’ of our own age – could be filling that niche, although much depends on keeping them out of the hands of those who warped the original ILR concept into its present morass of distant, de haut en bas corporate uniformity. Wrexham has had two such stations. One – Wrexham FM – didn’t get a second bite at the RSL cherry, but has now established itself as an on-line station headed by ex-Radio Clwyd and Marcher Group presenter Roy Norry; and the other – Calon FM – based at the town’s new Glyndŵr University (formerly the North East Wales Institute) broadcasts locally on 105MHz FM and on-line.
If Arthur Miller was correct in saying that “a good newspaper is […] a nation talking to itself”, then a good local radio station is a city, town or region doing the same thing, and is all the better for that. There is no reason why commercial considerations should trump that aim (unless you believe in the corporate gigantism which has become all too prevalent in so many areas of our lives, that bigger is always better) but rather they should sit alongside it and connect us all, local individuals and commerce alike. We are bombarded with far too much of what those at the centre think we should be told, or what we should consider to be significant; let us talk to each other and find out what we think is important. That way we may better discover – and preserve – what brings us together.